Apodiakos, 55 years old, does not work because he takes care of mother, Rose, full time. Her health complications – diabetes, cholesterol, frequent seizures and painful bedsores, to name a few – make her more susceptible to cold weather. Apodiakos watches his energy bill soar in Newton with fear.
“How are you supposed to live? said Apodiakos. ” We can not. It’s impossible.”
Massachusetts residents face staggering oil and gas bills this winter. While demand for fuel oil and other petroleum products has rebounded, crude oil production has still not reached pre-COVID levels. Additionally, fears of a disruption in global energy supply due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have driven prices even higher in recent days; On Thursday, after Russia launched its military assault, oil prices soared to over $100 a barrel.
Natural gas prices have also risen significantly, driven by some of the same factors affecting oil.
Amid periods of extreme cold this winter, some households are forced choose between heat and other basic needs.
“We’ve seen prices go up over the years, but here it’s the pandemic that’s making the difference,” said John Drew, executive director of the nonprofit Human Services Action for Community Development. from Boston. “It’s a miserable time if you don’t have the money to survive.”
In Massachusetts, heating costs rose across the board. At nearly $4.00 a gallon, heating oil is 40% above retail prices a year ago, according to the most recent data from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. Natural gas prices for home heating, which are regulated by the state, were up around 25% from the same period last year for National Grid customers and around 20% for customers from Eversource, according to state pricing data.
The number of National Grid customers in Massachusetts in its arrears management, rebate and payment programs more than doubled from January 2020 to January 2022, according to a company spokesperson.
National Grid has also asked the state’s Department of Utilities to raise its gas rate for March and April by about 7 cents due to rising supply costs.
About half of the state’s households use natural gas for heating, and 26 percent use oil or other fuel oils.
“There is anxiety,” said Worcester Community Action Council energy director Mary Knittle. “Our customers just want a little security.”
Agencies responsible for distributing fuel assistance in Massachusetts processed more applications with less manpower. Anti-poverty agency Community Action Pioneer Valley in Greenfield has seen a 25% increase in first applications, but has fewer staff to process them.
“Like all McDonald’s and all other stores, we have been challenged to ensure we have enough staff now,” said Peter Wingate, group energy director.
Local, state and federal authorities are scrambling to help voters cover heating costs. For those in financial difficulty, Massachusetts has a winter moratorium on gas utility shutdowns for nonpayment that expires March 15.
Senator Ed Markey introduced legislation in January increase annual funding for the federal Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance to low-income families, to $40 billion. If passed, the bill would also expand eligibility beyond households to 60% or less of the state’s median income, or $78,751 for a family of four.
Even if more people are eligible for help, Knittle said, many don’t even know help is available. During this fiscal year, the LIHEAP program received major assistance from the coronavirus recovery plan promulgated last March; Massachusetts received $307.5 million, its largest allocation ever.
About 18% of the state income-eligible population received LIHEAP funding in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“You may have heard all your life that there is a program called fuel assistance, but you may never wonder if you can apply for it,” Knittle said.
With the pandemic, Drew said agencies have had to go the extra mile to raise awareness of available resources.
“It’s hard to reach people, but we’re out there every day,” Drew said, “talking to the media, going to social media, flyers, anything to let eligible people know in this pandemic. “
When Nora Morales’ heating bills got too high, she scoured the internet until she found Action for Boston Community Development.
Morales, who cannot work due to a disability, supports her two daughters with help from Section 8, Social Security and SNAP Assistance. Although she keeps the temperature at 68 degrees, she said her home is poorly insulated, making it difficult to keep warm and triggering their asthma and allergies.
If it’s too cold, “we struggle to breathe and have to use the rescue inhalers,” Morales said. “If it’s really bad, sometimes we get bronchitis or pneumonia.”
This year, Massachusetts families can receive up to $1,650 in fuel assistance through the LIHEAP program, an increase of $440 from last winter. But higher bills this year mean federal aid money can’t go that far. Apodiakos, the Newton resident who cares for his mother full-time, said he was unable to pay his heating oil bills from last year until January.
Money is always available. Knittle said families requesting help should contact the agency representing their city or town. Residents can find a list of agencies by city on the state website.
There are also other ways to save money. Last month, state officials approved major reforms of Mass Save, Massachusetts’ leading energy efficiency program, providing landlords and tenants with significant assistance with insulation and weather protection projects, as well as energy-efficient appliances. Mass Save also offers incentives to help customers switch from fossil fuel heaters to electric heat pumps. The level of assistance available depends on income, but many upgrades are free for low-income residents.
“We’re going to help people save money on their bills and save the planet,” Knittle added.
Every degree counts when it comes to saving on heating bills, experts say. According to the US Department of Energy, setting the thermostat to 68 degrees or even lower when you’re home and awake and 60 when you’re away or sleeping can save households 10 percent.